Poetry lights up Al Dhafra Festival at night

Thirty would-be laureates compete for Dh85,000 in prizes and the chance to be Al Dhafra's poet laureate

Al Dhafra, 17, Dec, 2017: Visitors listen to the poetry  at the  Al Dhafra Festival in UAE  . Satish Kumar for the National/ Story by Anna /For Shala Poetry Story
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At the Al Dhafra Festival, poetry is all around. It’s recited by boys in the grandstands at camel beauty competitions, blasted from speakers as motorcades escort camel celebrities and it is the soundtrack for scores of Instagram montages showcasing slow-motion beauty camels in full stride.

This year, a new competition is looking for the poet laureate of Al Dhafra.

The winner of the Al Dhfara Poetry Competition will take home Dh30,000 and become the talk of the state-sponsored festival. A total of 30 would-be laureates are competing for five prizes that total Dh85,000. Most are young men. Many were teenagers.

Special attention at this competition is paid to the shellah, melodic bedouin poetry that dominates fireside majlises and grandstands at Al Dhafra. “Shellah makes people relax and makes them feel comfortable,” said Hamdan Al Mazrouei, 23, a student at California State University, San Bernardino. “It’s all about poetry.”

To the uninitiated, the long, fluttering notes of shellah sound like singing. Many are loath to identify it as such, as many of its biggest fans believe music is sinful.

“Music is for not bedouin people,” said Salem Al Mazrouei, a spectator whose relatives breed camels and compete in the festival. “It’s for families living in the capital. But shellah is for the bedouin.”

Television, technology and social media have not stifled poetry in the region, rather they have expanded its reach.Nowhere is this more evident than Al Dhafra. Poetry can make or break a camel, raising its renown and, by extension, its value.

For generations shellah has told of battles and loves stories, legends and the news of the day. This is still true today, except social media is the poet's 21st century platform.

It was anticipated that camel superstars at Al Dhafra would be the most popular muse for the Dhafra Poetry Competition.

To level the playing field at the Al Dhafra Poetry Competition, contestants are given a different theme each night, like ‘the nation’, or ‘gatherings’.

“If it has a theme of camels or falcons, there are some poets who don’t know about those subjects but anybody can write about themes like the nation,” said one of the competition’s three judges, the professional Emirati poet Obaid Al Mazrouei.


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Held nightly in the market area outside the grandstands, a short fence divides seating for men and women. Every night, the women’s section fills with visitors from the nearby town of Medinat Zayed.

“For women or men, poetry is something in the soul of the poet,” said Yousra Al Uthali, 17, a pupil from Medinat Zayed.

Hers is a generation raised with the names of poet superstars from the reality television show Million’s Poet, which launched in 2008 and attracted up to 15 million viewers at the height of its popularity. Widespread respect for its format of classical nabati poetry allowed poets to address sensitive topics, like sectarianism and radicalism.

In Al Dhafra this week, women spoke of the show's 2010 finalist, Saudi poet Hissa Hilal, who stirred controversy on Million's Poet in 2010 for her poem, "The Chaos of Fatwas".

On Monday night the theme was Al Dhafra Festival. More than one poet evoked the power of the falcon’s flight and the beauty of salukhi hounds. Another recited about the virtue of patience.

For Sunday night’s theme, the nation, Palestinian Ahmed Yassien stood before a small audience and recited a praise for Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

The three judges asked his nationality. “I am not Emirati but I have lived in the Emirates for like 40 years,” he told the panel. They told him this strengthened his words.

Speaking after his performance, Mr Yassien discussed his inspiration. “It’s about the UAE and what happened inside it, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed and how he can defend our country from the enemies. I talked about the Houthis in Yemen because it’s the talk of the town.

“All people talk about it. As we are living here and love this country, it becomes our dialogue. We are in the same destiny, even if the soldiers are in the war and we are here.”

Six contestants compete every night, four performing poetry and two performing shellah. Half advance to the next round.

Three judges gave each poetry contestant a score out of 50 points for creativity, content and presentation. Each shellah contested was scored out of 20 for melody, voice, and presentation.

Judge Saif Al Mansoori, 2015 winner of Million's Poet, said such competitions were critical in developing talent. "When you get challenged by others, you respect yourself."

The competition is every night from 7 to 8pm at the festival’s traditional market.